Most people — particularly parents with little kids — know that lead poisoning is a dangerous threat to health and may even cause nerve and brain damage.
What they may not know is that the most the most common way to increase lead exposure is to sand or scrape paint in buildings built before 1978.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) wants to increase awareness of this hazard by requiring retailers that sell paint to post easily visible signs informing consumers of the threat and providing them with contact information where they can learn more.
But retailers oppose a Weinberg-sponsored bill, S-1527/A-2885], arguing that posters will not be an effective way of raising awareness, while costing them valuable shelf and display space. They’d rather see the burden for informing the public fall on the paint industry, which supports the bill.
The importance of reducing exposure to lead is not in dispute. There is no proven safe level of lead in the body; it harms every biological system and can adversely affect brain development..
Nearly one in 200 children tested in 2013, or 0.48 percent, had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Still, this represents progress; in 2000 the level was 2.83 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lead exposure varies widely across New Jersey. In 2007, the most recent data available, lead levels among New Jersey children ranged from a low of 0.42 percent in Morris County to a high of 3.66 percent in Cumberland County.
Since lead hasn’t been included in paint for decades, the bill doesn’t address current products. Instead, it seeks to inform consumers of the danger of lead exposure when they need it most, which is when they may be planning to sand or strip older coats of paint before applying a new one.
New Jersey Retail Merchants Association President John Holub said retailers appreciate the intent of the bill, but say they’re the wrong venue for informing the public.
“A sign up in a store is one of the more ineffective ways to raise awareness of this issue,” Holub said.
He added that it’s not simply a matter of retailers wanting to “shirk responsibility” and shift it onto paint manufacturers, since many retailers themselves manufacture products.
Holub questioned whether paint manufacturers have lived up to their end of a 2003 consent agreement with New Jersey’s attorney general, in which they agreed to include labels on their products about the danger of paint removal in old houses, and to fund public education on the issue.
“Before you start beginning to require retailers to start putting signs in their stores, I would like to know what the paint manufacturers — the people who should ultimately be responsible for this product — have done,” Holub said, noting that there are contaminated Superfund sites in the state from paint.
Following that 2003 agreement, the state Supreme Court dismissed lawsuits in 2007 that sought to hold paint makers responsible for the cost of lead-poisoning prevention efforts.
Holub said legislators have introduced many bills in the past requiring retailers to put signs in their stores for various reasons. “At a certain point, it becomes ineffective to put signs up in the stores,” he said, adding: “You’d be amazed at the different products have required us to put signs up.”
He cited as an example flat-screen TVs, which can tip over. The retailers worked to alter legislation that required a warning to be posted; instead, the notification is included inside the television boxes. According to Holub, that is a much more effective way to warn consumers than a sign on the wall in stores.
“It’s obviously much more impactful when the consumer has the product in their hand,” he said.
Holub said warnings about paint removal should be included with the paint products themselves, not in the store.
“Shelf space is at a premium. We need to sell our products, and if you start putting all these various requirements to put up signs, we could end up with signs all over,” he said.
The bill received bipartisan support at a recent hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, which released the legislation unanimously. While the bill was initially scheduled for a Senate vote yesterday, it was held. The Assembly version has been referred to the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee.